In a blog post for the New York Times last week, Sylvia Rowly traced the recent history of the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery. The past few decades has seen the fishery go from an “economic disaster,” to certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Rowly attributes the success of the fishery to the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the change in management to a catch-share program.
Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr
The crisis in U.S. west coast groundfish was not a lack of fish, but instead was caused by U.S. stock rebuilding requirements.
Sylvia Rowly’s opinion piece misrepresents the history and status of the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery. The west coast ground fish stocks had not collapsed in any sense, the total abundance of these stocks was about half of what it had been when large scale fishing began around 1950. This is the level that is generally agreed to produce long-term maximum sustainable yield. Certainly a number of individual stocks were at low abundance and declared overfished, but as we showed in our 2012 article in Conservation Biology there were plenty of fish to catch and the sustainable yield of groundfish off the west coast was as high as ever. The crisis for fishermen was brought on by catch restrictions imposed to protect the overfished stocks (and too many boats), not by the lack of fish to catch. Even though total abundance of groundfish has been rebuilding since about 2000, the catch has not increased because this is a highly mixed fishery where it is difficult to manage each individual species to its optimum level.
The current legal framework in the U.S. insists that each stock be rebuilt to levels that will produce maximum sustainable yield for that stock, even at the expense of the potential yield of much larger and more valuable stocks that are caught at the same time. At present we harvest 1% of the biomass of groundfish off the West Coast – but the science advice from NOAA suggests we could catch 3 times more than that. Put another way, the actual catch is only 1/3 of the catch limits. The reason fishermen are not catching their allowable catches is that if they go over their individual quota for any individual species, they have to stop fishing completely. Yelloweye rockfish is one of the most constraining species. The rebuilding requirements have set the quota so low that many fishermen have a quota of only a few pounds. Thus, fishermen avoid fishing anywhere they might catch yelloweye rockfish. The result is that the total catch of yelloweye rockfish is less than 20% of the very, very small quota. Essentially, in order to avoid exceeding their yelloweye quota and other limiting species, fishermen are forfeiting 2/3 of the potential catch leaving money, food and jobs in the ocean.
Rowley’s article describes a collapse which never happened, and applauds current management practices for the current status of stocks. The new catch-share system has not been effective at getting fishermen to be able to catch the allowable catch of each species, but perhaps with changes in the system it could.
If the purpose of U.S. fisheries is to maximize the benefits from producing food, jobs and economic benefits to communities, the current requirement to rebuild all stocks to the level that would produce maximum yield for that stock is counterproductive.
Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr